On Plot Armour

c0fb61f624cb514f125c11848d596360

Have you heard of Plot Armour? (also called, according to Dr. Google, script immunity or a character shield) Plot armour is the idea that because a main character is the main character a reader never really has to feel truly worried about their health and wellbeing because obviously the story isn’t going to abruptly end with them getting ganked halfway through.

While it obviously tends to apply to more action adventure type genres, similar concepts can be applied for romances and general fiction too, i.e. the idea that you never have too worry too much about say the MC ending up alone, unsuccessful or whatever because the story is about them right?

But back to action, plot armour is the bain of many an aspiring writer because action a common element in our writing, and putting the MC in harms way seems the obvious choice for good action. But is it? I’m going to talk about some ways plot armour can be avoided or otherwise managed to still create a tense story.

The GRR Martin approach.

It just wouldn’t be a good discussion about the danger of main characters without mentioning this brilliant author. Martin is somewhat renowned for killing of characters, favoured and unfavoured. And while one of his claimed intents was to make a reader truly worry about their MC its important to note that this isn’t just achieved by being merciless with one’s characters. Martin’s deadly writing is about more than just being willing to slaughter characters on page, after all there are many sprawling epic fantasies that do the same (but are no-where near as popular) where Martin differs is that he puts immaculate effort into the intertwined actions of the characters in Game of Thrones so it would be inaccurate to say characters are killed randomly, while Martin subverts many genre tropes his character deaths are planned and meaningful (unlike say Lost where actors quit the show so characters had to be axed to suit).

I guess my point is that The Song of Fire and Ice series is probably an exception to the rule of plot armour only in part because of careful intricate plotting across many characters and many books, not all stories can afford to be bloated with multiple MC’s or installments so my advice is not to emulate Martin just to avoid plot armour.

So what else is there?

Well…

Death isn’t the only tension

A problem I see in many less awesome action driven plots is that danger and fights are presented simplistically as a risk to the Main Character – for example most superhero fights –  there is a reason that many action flicks include a damsel in distress, hostage situations or bombs about to explode in populated areas.

My point is that not all stakes should be danger to the MC, not only will the natural inclination of the reader be to assume that they will survive (as the MC) but also repetitive stakes get boring. Having nuanced consequences makes for good storytelling anyway. For example in many movie fight scenes element of time-limits are included in a conflict, cheesy as it often seems it successfully adds tension because plot armour doesn’t aways mean that the MC will defeat their foes quickly.

(admittedly there probably needs to be some term like “plot sword” describing the fact that we assume the plot will resolve happily)

How” can be a tenser question than “will”

This may be a good time to point out that most readers will assume a safe conclusion to the story they are reading. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but my point is that people enjoy stories for more than just wondering if their is going to be a happier ending. Thus when challenges face characters readers tend to think “how are they going to get past this one?” not “Will they survive”. The reason I point this out is I’ve noticed that writers can get myopic about convincing a reader that their MC might get killed, forgetting that isn’t the only reason readers find themselves on the edge of their seats.

Achieving this ‘how?’ questions is very much about setup of antagonism. As mentioned earlier many aspiring writers seems to throw enemies at their MC’s and hope that something about this fight will convince the reader to worry that their hero might get slain. I’ve noticed in popular and well written books (fantasy in particular) action and fight scenes are actually relatively scarce, or not always portrayed dramatically. This is because a good writer knows how to emphasize a powerful scene, and not seeing a character in danger every five minutes can increase the tension as the reader isn’t bombarded with constant wins from the MC.

Reasonable Doubt

I’m not trying to completely dissuade  that lethal danger is a no-go for plot tension. It can be extremely harrowing at times reading about a character being put at risk. One way I’ve noticed skilled writers avoid plot armour while there is a mortal threat is using what I’ve started calling ‘reasonable doubt’. Taken from the idea of putting reasonable doubt in jurors minds during a murder, I believe that readers can be convinced to have reasonable doubt that the main character will survive, whether its by having Iron Man getting his actual armour bashed and battered, a character doubting their own success or perhaps there being just a hint of the story still being able to continue should the MC perish often this is enough to worry a reader.

It’s a little ironic that when a reader picks a story up its implied that a main character will be the chosen one, or the hero, or the saviour, by the mere fact they are being written about, but I think its worth considering how to manipulate or manage those expectation to create a tense story.

 

What ways do you avoid/manage plot armour around your characters?

How NOT to write a novel – top tips. — Idle blogs of an idle fellow

1. Wait for inspiration. This is the same as waiting for ‘the one’. They don’t exist. Tellingly you’re more likely to meet inspiration than your carefully constructed fantasy partner. It can happen when a paragraph falls out of the sky so complete that it’s hard to even take responsibility for it, but unless you’re Moses, […]

via How NOT to write a novel – top tips. — Idle blogs of an idle fellow

5 Tips To Get You Tweeting Like A Pro

#Retweet #freestuff #LOL #sorrynotsorry

Nicholas C. Rossis

Author Steve Boseley, who has posted on my blog a guest post on the best time to tweet, recently published a post filled with tips on how to compose the perfect Tweet. I’m copying here his main tips, but I urge you to check out his complete post if you’re using Twitter to promote your books, as he also has some great tips on Twitter etiquete.

Tip #1: People Are Looking For Bargains

Here is what people are looking for on Twitter:

Tweeting Tips | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books Image via Steve Boseley

Notice a pattern? Yes, the two most popular items are discounts and promos, and free stuff!

Tip #2: Ask A Question

Phrasing your tweet is obviously paramount to its success. One remarkably successful way to increase interaction with a tweet is to phrase it as a question:

  • Why it is important to always…
  • Why you should never…
  • What is…

View original post 432 more words

Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story — A Writer’s Path

by John Briggs One simple idea can give your story much-needed tension. One phrase — one sentence, really — can help most authors make their stories more tense, more dramatic, more gripping. “If your characters ever meet you, they should punch you in the face.” I don’t know who said it, but that may […]

via Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story — A Writer’s Path

Game Changing Writing Advice: Sentence Starters — Blissful Scribbles

A while ago I wrote a post asking you lovely bloggers for advice on how to stop using He, She, Character Name as sentence starters. I am so overwhelmed by the level of guidance and support I received from that post. To check out all the incredibly helpful comments click here. As promised, I’ve collated […]

via Game Changing Writing Advice: Sentence Starters — Blissful Scribbles

On Fight Scenes

The toddler’s napping, the dishes are (mostly) done, and I’ve noticed this topic has been floating around threads and posts of late so here are my thoughts on the topic.

stickmen-bookends

First of all I have to confess a slight arrogance to this post, not because I have any particular superiority on the subject, but simply because most of the other articles I see posted about the web don’t in my opinion cover fight scenes well. Sure you can find lots of tidbits and basic advice but I feel like no-one is covering the subtexts of fight scenes. I don’t mean like a superanalysis of the symbols and deep meaning, but just focusing on the story/writerly aspects of fight scenes.

So this post won’t be giving you advice about realism, authenticity or how to choreograph in prose. But I will be diving as deep as I can into the more literary mechanics of fights (without passing out)

What’s in a fight scene?

It may be wise to discuss before diving any deeper, what actually is a fight scene. I mean the answer is relatively obvious and not something you probably need me to tell you, but I think sitting down and clarifying helps to further develop one’s understanding.

My thesis is that a fight scene is a scene (wow great insight Thomas) that pits two or more characters against each other in a visceral and immediate conflict. Whether the weapons are fists, guns, swords, giant mech warriors or Pokemon the conflict pushes the characters directly against each other. I want to differentiate fight scenes from other situations like action sequences, and acts of violence, both of which may have some aspects in common but in my argument to not have the participants in direct conflict. For example in a chase scene one character may wish to fight, but the other wants to get away, the chase may well end in a fight but the chase part the characters goals are not equal in opposite in aggression.

Now that I’ve defined fight scenes it may be useful to have a short bit on movies vs books. Fight scenes tend to work well in movies, they create a visual spectacle, with choreography, shots, editing, acting not to mention the mere visual fact of seeing human beings rumble seems to automatically create tension in our hearts. I suspect many people enjoy movie fight scenes so much they want to recreate that sense in their writing, however fight scenes in books is a considerably different kettle of fish, so different its almost not a kettle and not fish we’re talking about (pot of monkeys maybe). In short I think its a mistake to try and capture film fight scenes in prose.

Despite that in explaining what I think good written fight scenes require I’m going to use some movies examples EVEN THOUGH I just poo pooed the idea, but focusing on the writerly parts.

Let’s get into it!

A Tale of Two-Three Fight Scenes

The first important part of fight scenes is looking at how the fights of your story actually tell a story of their own. In a certain not well  known movie called THE MATRIX you will find some of the best fight scenes out there. Of course this is in part because of the all the cool visual movie stuff, but they are also written in my opinion extremely well.

It’s a little hard to separate the fight from all the general action sequences, but in my opinion there are three fight scenes:

Neo vs Morpheus

Morpheus vs Agent Smith

Neo vs Agent Smith

If you look at it that way you can almost see a story told by the scenes themselves. The first fight shows Neo’s (I know Kung Fu) potential, and also shows his Mentor Morpheus not being too sloppy himself. When Morpheus fights Agent Smith we see just how strong The Agents really are, along with Morpheus’ belief in Neo’s potential, so much so he sacrifices himself. And finally when Neo fights Smith we see Neo embracing his ‘oneness’ and Smith finally being defeated.

My point is not that the fight scenes tell the whole story of The Matrix, but that in themselves do have thematic progress that supports the overall story. When I noticed this I also realized that this sort of ordering of fight scenes or similar is fairly common.

Also my point isn’t that you need to go away and craft your novel to have some sort of hero’s journey progression shoved into your fights, but rather that the positioning and order of the scenes should be intentional and designed for maximum literary oomph.

Stakes

Another way the above fights are skilfully written is careful attention to stakes. The consequences of the 3 fights is quite different and steadily more dramatic. If Neo lost his fight against Morpheus (or more accurately failed to hit him) the consequence would be a little lost hope that Neo was indeed the one. Morpheus indeed does lose his fight, the stakes being the potential death of a liked character and disruption and pain for his crew. Getting pretty serious here. The final fight has the highest stakes, our main character’s (and hope along with him) life is at risk, and if he wins the fight this pretty much means the turning of the war, as it will be the first time an Agent of the Matrix has been defeated (other than the bad-ass “dodge this” moment, but that can’t happen every time).

What I find in boring stories with lots of fights is there isn’t really any attention to varying or dynamic stakes. Often the hero is simply physically threatened by the fight, which tends to lack tension due to plot armour (i.e. the fact we know the MC isn’t going to die randomly). Stakes don’t necessarily have to be mortal or even melodramatically high to make a fight exciting, they just have to have to make an important difference to the story going forward. The best fights would have a significance for either person winning. One of the best written fight scenes for this is the Mountain versus the Viper in The Song of Fire and Ice Series (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THE BOOKS AND SHOW)

In this scene if the Viper wins this will mean the freedom of Tyrion a much loved and falsely accused MC, it will be a major blow against the Lannisters, a group of villains who for the first few books have it all too good, and the Viper will have revenge against the Mountain. If the Mountain wins then Tyrion is sentenced to death, and all the Viper’s goals will be in smoke and audiences will die a little inside themselves. Even though neither The Viper or The Mountain are main characters themselves, and there are no nuclear bombs waiting to go off, the stakes are high because its the distance between the two consequences that make the fight so tense. A poorly written fight scene feels boring because the tension is between a main character getting defeated and killed, or the plot advancing when the main character wins, and almost universally we know the MC isn’t going to get whacked so really its just a matter of waiting for the plot to move forwards.

Stakes aren’t necessarily established in the same scene as the fight either, good fights aren’t just about how well that scene is written but by how the other material supports it.

Beats (not pun intended)

Something that took me a while to get my head around in general is story beats. My understanding of a story beat is simply a small step or movement of the plot conveyed by some action (almost always by a character of said story). A simple plot will have relatively clear and straightforward beats/actions, whereas a complex plot may have multiple characters engaged in multiple beats/actions.

I think a mistake many writers make is considering a fight scene to be a single story beat, which they certainly can be. But a good fight scene can contain multiple beats within itself, which are shown within the specific action. An obvious example of this is the opening fight scene of Logan. In this scene Logan attempts to prevent a gaggle of crims from stealing the wheels off of his limo.

The fight begins with Logan getting blasted by a shotgun and falling. He then attempts to talk to the men, and gets beaten back, finally deciding to pop his claws only to show himself to be so old and busted his claws barely work and the guys beat him to the ground. Finally Logan goes berserk, and gets the upper hand, tearing the men apart. Morality aside the fight has nice clear beats to observe, Logan making attempts to talk the men out of their pursuit and fighting them, Logan failing to fight them, and finally giving into the rage and killing several of the group. Most fights are slightly more subtle and carry different themes and steps, but when it comes to ‘choreography’ this is what a writer should be focused on. It’s good advice to not try and compile a blow-by-blow of a written fight, but often the advice I see floating around the blogosphere doesn’t really have anything to fill the blanks.

So in review this is my key advice:

  • Have the fight scenes tell their own tale, supporting the overall story
  • Establish stakes beyond just the main character might die, ensure there is a clear consequence for either side winning and avoid plot armour making one outcome obvious
  • Design your fight to include story beats, or movements of plot that develop character, and move the story of the conflict back and forth

Fight scenes in my opinion are a great way to develop and release tension in a story and make the conflict simple and all the more compelling for it.

 

What are your guys thoughts on fight scenes?

 

Do you have any killer examples of great written fights?

 

How about any duds?

 

And lo the boy awakes – so long!